Saturday, May 30, 2009

Final Voyage

Final Voyage, 1989

On a blustery March day in 1989 that still carried the taste of winter, the S.S. United States was indignantly nudged by tugs down Norfolk, Virginia's Elizabeth River after being out of service for 20 years. United States was once the mighty mistress of the North Atlantic cruise trade. The design of her rakish bow and hull were, quite literally, state secrets. She held the transatlantic crossing speed record for her entire term of service.

During a routine annual overhaul visit in 1969 to the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, where United States had been built only seventeen years earlier, the United States Line abruptly took her out of service, a casualty of the growing popularity of trans-Atlantic air travel. Her crew was given only enough time to pack their personal belongings and depart the ship. United States was later towed to an empty pier a few miles away in Norfolk, where she remained sealed and rusting for twenty years.

During her time in Norfolk, a series of investors and speculators came and went with plans for returning United States to service, none of them viable enough to result in any action. Despite her structural integrity and speed--there were reports that she was so fast that water literally blew out of temporary swimming pools rigged on her upper deck--United States had been designed for North Atlantic service and wasn't suitable for the growing Caribbean cruise trade.

By the late 1980s, the owners of United States were years behind in their rent for the pier and the Norfolk International Terminal wanted the space she occupied to expand its container handling operation. The ship's owners announced an auction of the ship's interior furnishings. Remember, everything on the ship was left just as it had been that afternoon in 1969 when she was taken out of service. Beds were unmade, ship's logs letters to loved ones were left unfinished, menus were in mid-course. Visiting the ship to see auction items was like pulling back the cover on a maritime pyramid. Hermetically sealed behind rusty hatches, the sleek moderne furniture and interior décor of United States was so untouched that you half expected the ghost of Cole Porter to start playing one of her famously fireproof pianos. Following the auction, the ship was to be moved temporarily to Newport News so that she could be readied for a tow to Turkey, where breakers were to gut the ship's interior so that she could be redeveloped.

On the appointed day of the move, I accompanied a few friends on a small sail boat to watch the move. It was a bitter cold and rainy morning. We left before sunrise in order to arrive at the United States before she departed Norfolk. Because the chains holding United States to the pier were so rusty, it was actually late afternoon before they could be broken and the ship pulled away from the pier. I was using my 22 year-old Nikkormat camera and filled several rolls of film documenting United States's trip down the foggy river. It was thrilling to watch her under way, even if not under her own power.

Unfortunately, only a few images from the day survive. The place where I took my film to be processed managed to destroy most of the negatives. The photograph above is an admittedly impressionistic view. The original negative was so damaged that anything else was out of the question. Over the years I've actually come to like this image more than a more literal interpretation would have been. I'd love to have this on a canvas large enough to cover a wall.

[In 1996, the S.S. United States returned home to the U.S. from her asbestos gutting sojourn to Turkey and the Ukraine and has been laid up and rusting in Philadelphia ever since.]


  1. Wow! That IS a story--and what a fabulous photo. I love this image. Man, how unfortunate to lose the film, though, when you did. That must have been so depressing. Great to hear the stories behind these.

  2. Hey Chris,
    Welcome to the blogosphere. I love this image because it's impressionistic.

    Will have to come back to read more of these.
    Christine (*CA*)